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The Hopelessness Index: Ranking the Situations of the NFL’s Six Winless Teams

For some, this is exactly where they want to be. For others, it’s a nightmare.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Ringer’s weekly NFL rankings, where we’ll break down the good, the bad, and the absurd of the 2019 season. Every Tuesday, we’ll have a ranking of the moments, players, or story lines that are driving the conversation around the league. This week, we’re exploring the concept of suffering.

It’s a fan’s worst nightmare: You spend all spring and summer getting ready for your team’s season, reading preview content, researching the new players, and even sitting through preseason games. And then, before the Halloween decorations are even out, your team has lost all of its games and the season is effectively over.

This year, there is an exceptionally high number of fans living that awful dream. Through four weeks, the NFL boasts six winless teams. (It could’ve been seven, had the Bengals and Steelers not played on Monday.) If you think that seems like a lot of teams with a donut in the win column, you’re right: In three of the past four seasons, there has been only one winless team after four weeks. 2019 is the first year this decade that has more than four teams without a victory at this point. The NFL may be running short on elite squads, but it’s got its fair share of basement dwellers.

No one on this list will make the playoffs; only one 0-4 team, the 1992 Chargers, has ever made it to the postseason, and the teams with three losses still face near-insurmountable odds. But not all winless teams are created equal. Some are here by design. Others don’t mind it, at least while they jockey for draft position. And for a few teams, this is the worst-case scenario: a bottoming out that will have untold consequences for the franchise. Let’s rank this year’s six winless teams, from the least miserable situations to the most.

6. Arizona Cardinals (0-3-1)

How did we get here?

Arizona was not supposed to be good, at least not right away. This team went 3-13 last season and brought in a new head coach to run an offensive system never seen in the NFL with a rookie quarterback. But there was cause for cautious optimism after Week 1: In his first start, Kyler Murray led the Cardinals to an 18-point comeback (and ultimately, a tie) against the possibly very good Lions. The next week, the Cardinals lost by just six to Ravens, who started the season as hot as any team. Since then, however, it’s not been pretty, with Arizona losing by three scores in each of its past two games, including a 27-10 shellacking by Seattle on Sunday.

The chief problem here is pass protection. The Cardinals’ offensive-line woes date back a few seasons, and thus far in 2019, it appears to be more of the same. The 2019 no. 1 pick was sacked eight times in a Week 3 loss to the Panthers. Some of those, as Football Outsiders notes, can be blamed on the rookie’s inability to get rid of the ball instead of taking the sack, but D.J. Humphries, Jordan Mills, and whatever turnstile they can fit a jersey on aren’t doing him any favors.

How miserable is it?

Compared to those of the other teams in this ignominious rankings, Arizona’s future looks downright sunny. Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense could still be a revelation, and it’s already revitalized Larry Fitzgerald. On Sunday against the Seahawks, running back David Johnson finally had enough space to get going, as he finished with eight catches for 99 yards. While a good portion of that can likely be traced to Murray checking down under pressure, Johnson’s backup, Chase Edmonds, averaged more than 6 yards a carry on six tries. On defense, the cupboard is more barren, but rookie cornerback Byron Murphy has impressed, totaling three pass breakups, including one to save a Russell Wilson touchdown. Building a foundation for the future should be the Cardinals’ only goal right now, and they’re well positioned with their current core and whatever high draft picks they’ll add in April. Now if only Kliff could quit field goals.

5. Miami Dolphins (0-4)

How did we get here?

The biggest victory for the Dolphins so far this season is appearing so low in these rankings. Miami had the worst DVOA Football Outsiders had ever tracked through three weeks, and after Sunday’s 30-10 loss to the Chargers, that mark is unlikely to get much better. (But hey, the Dolphins briefly held their first lead of the season in that game!) This team’s roster was considered the worst in football heading into the season, and that was before Miami traded Laremy Tunsil and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Dolphins are on pace to double the record for worst point differential. There’s been talk of mutiny and 0-16. They’ve been disowned by T-Pain. At least they can take solace in the fact that this was all by design.

How miserable is it?

Debates about whether the Process can work in the NFL aside, right now was as smart as any time for the team to try this approach. After a seemingly never-ending run of 7-9 and 6-10 seasons with Ryan Tannehill, Miami jettisoned the 2012 first-rounder this offseason and fully committed to this tank job. Sure, the Dolphins took a flyer on former Cardinals QB Josh Rosen, but make no mistake: They have their eyes on a signal-caller at the top of the 2020 draft. The Dolphins also got a first-rounder from the Steelers in exchange for Fitzpatrick, and that move could have real Kyrie Irving–trade-style implications. Miami may not have much of a core to speak of right now, but the pieces are in place for the team to start building a strong one next year. Let’s just hope first-year head coach Brian Flores is around to see it.

4. New York Jets (0-3)

How did we get here?

At least some experts thought the Jets had a chance at the playoffs this season. Now, after three losses, two QBs going down, and one already-necessary bye week, well …

The Jets hired head coach Adam Gase this offseason in hopes that Peyton Manning’s former offensive coordinator could get the most out of Sam Darnold. Instead, he’s barely gotten the chance. The sophomore signal-caller was diagnosed with mononucleosis ahead of the team’s Week 2 matchup against the Browns, and backup Trevor Siemian was knocked out for the year in that game. New York has been forced to play Luke Falk, a 2018 sixth-rounder who never saw game action before this season. The results have been predictable. Luckily, Darnold may be ready to play this week against the Eagles. But, well …

How miserable is it?

It’s not hard to imagine the Jets turning it around as soon as this week, provided Darnold returns. The defense has been competent to start the season, ranking 11th in Football Outsiders DVOA through three weeks. Le’Veon Bell has looked great in spurts in his first year with the team, even if the stats don’t paint the prettiest picture. The Jets are expected to get Quinnen Williams and C.J. Mosley back in the coming weeks. The roster could reflect the true level of talent on this team sooner rather than later. Also, there’s the matter of schedule: The Jets have four games remaining against winless teams so far this season. (Not every team in this ranking can go 0-16, regrettably.)

There is, however, the question of coaching. Daily News beat reporter Manish Mehta, who was bullish on Gase’s hiring, recently compared the new coach to a used-car lemon. Additionally, an anonymous source told Mehta that “it’s always somebody else’s fault” for Gase. That would be a troubling anonymous quote if Gase didn’t publicly throw his players under the bus every chance he got. It could be tough for Gase to get the locker room to buy in. At least the rest of his coaching staff looks stable.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (0-4)

How did we get here?

Is there a more blandly terrible team than the Bengals? Cincinnati ended the eternal purgatory of the Marvin Lewis era this offseason, hiring Zac Taylor presumably because he once had a cup of coffee with Sean McVay. But they changed little else and had a troublingly quiet offseason. (Let me tell you, googling “Bengals offseason moves” is pretty high up on the Google Search Misery Rankings, which are coming next week.) The Bengals entered 2019 looking like one of the NFL’s worst teams, and so far, they’ve lived up to that billing. Through three weeks, before Monday’s trouncing at the hands of the previously winless Steelers, the Bengals ranked 31st in DVOA. Sure, A.J. Green is hurt, and the team has lost a few close games, but it’s tough to explain this. Fans could soon find themselves pining for the mediocrity of the Lewis era.

How miserable is it?

The Bengals have an Andy Dalton decision to make. The 2011 second-rounder, who is somehow a three-time Pro Bowler, has seen his team make the playoffs five times (and win zero playoff games) during his tenure. But Cincy can move on from the Red Rifle this offseason and not eat dead cap money. It may sound enticing, but unless the Bengals find themselves in the running for Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, can we be sure that they’ll be getting an upgrade? Dalton is the kind of quarterback who can steer a talented team to January. There’s no guarantee his successor could do the same.

2. Denver Broncos (0-4)

How did we get here?

Denver opened 2019 the same way it closed out 2018: by losing four straight games. The Broncos are the only team on this list to win a Super Bowl this decade, but their dropoff from those heights has them at a crossroads for the first time since Peyton Manning joined in 2012. General manager John Elway believed replacing head coach Vance Joseph with Vic Fangio and Case Keenum with Joe Flacco would be enough to get this team back in the playoffs. (Full disclosure: I also believed this, betting actual real-life money on the Broncos to earn a postseason berth.) He appears to have been very wrong. (And I appear to be very out several hundred dollars.)

This offense was never supposed to be great, but the thinking was it didn’t have to be. The Broncos finished 2018 ranked fifth in defensive DVOA and still boasted Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Now Chubb is out for the season with a torn ACL, Von Miller and the rest of the defense didn’t record a sack until Sunday, and the Broncos are out here reviving Leonard Fournette’s season. Is it possible that I can expense that bet, cc: @BillSimmons?

How miserable is it?

The talent is still there on defense, and Vic Fangio worked wonders in Chicago last year, and yadda yadda. Yes, the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 with Manning’s corpse propped up Weekend at Bernie’s style, but that team’s defense went on a historically great run. For Denver to realistically have a chance in the near term, Elway needs to land a franchise QB. The post-Manning era has done little to prove that’s possible. Flacco, Case Keenum, Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch, Brock Osweiler—none have been the answer for this team, but they all appear to be Elway’s type. Drew Lock, the 2019 second-rounder who also fits the tall-and-vanilla mold, could be, but what will this team do when it lands a top-10 pick? Let’s just hope that 6-foot-6 Justin Herbert looks good in orange and blue.

1. Washington (0-4)

How did we get here?

Nothing in Washington’s recent past suggested the team would be good, but by no means did it look like they’d stink this bad. After a pair of 7-9 seasons, the team traded for Case Keenum, who was supposed to be a stopgap until 2019 first-rounder Dwayne Haskins was ready. But the offense has been miserable under Keenum, averaging less than 300 yards per game and a shade over 16 points. With Derrius Guice out, Adrian Peterson has led this team in rushing—with 90 yards through four games. Rookie wideout Terry McLaurin has been a bright spot, but he’s currently nursing a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, the team’s best player and undisputed leader, left tackle Trent Williams, continues his holdout after reportedly losing trust in the team because of the way it handed a surgical procedure for a growth on his head. To make bleak matters worse, Haskins was prematurely thrust into action against the Giants on Sunday after Keenum went down with a foot injury. The rookie threw for 107 yards and three picks on just 17 attempts. Yes, many of us clamored for Haskins to play, but no one wanted his first game action to come like this.

Watching Kirk Cousins flail in Minnesota is likely the only joy Washington fans will experience this season. At least Haskins sees brighter days ahead.

How miserable is it?

After Washington’s Week 3 blowout loss to Chicago, head coach Jay Gruden said he planned to continue to start Keenum over Haskins because he believed in “continuity.” As my colleague Danny Heifetz said at the time, continuity has always been the issue in Washington. This team has been owned by Dan Snyder for 20 years and managed by Bruce Allen since 2009. Since Allen took over, Washington has had two first-round playoff exits, effectively destroyed Robert Griffin III’s career, and cut key defenders to create the cap space necessary to sign Landon Collins. The team’s highest-paid player, Alex Smith, may never play pro football again, and its second-highest-paid player, cornerback Josh Norman, is currently earning a 51.4 from Pro Football Focus. No. 5 on that list is Jordan Reed, who may be forced to retire due to concussions, and no. 6 on the list is Williams. You can’t fault management for the injuries to Smith and Reed, but this is what happens when you build a roster with little depth.

And it’s probably going to cost Gruden his job. Left unspoken in his “continuity” talk last week was whether his goals align with Allen and Snyder’s. Gruden is managing for this season—a playoff berth seems next to impossible now, but a strong showing in the next 12 games could save his job, or at least be a great audition for his next employer. It’s why, despite Haskins’s appearance in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Giants, the coach is considering going back to Keenum or inserting Colt McCoy for Sunday’s matchup with the undefeated Patriots. But the front office likely has little use for the present, or Gruden at this point.

Washington may get its version of a Super Bowl fairly soon, however. ESPN’s Football Power Index ranks the team as the second worst in football, ahead of only, naturally, the Dolphins. After playing New England this week, Washington will travel to Miami. It’s near impossible to imagine that Week 6 matchup won’t be between two 0-5 teams. The loser should have the inside track for the no. 1 pick in April. While Washington didn’t mean to do this, if the team can pull off the top pick, it may not find itself no. 1 the next time we do these rankings.